Justin Hynes on F1's silly season: Carry on Cleo

Justin Hynes looks at some of the more entertaining stories to come out over the summer break, including a defensive Pastor Maldonado, the F1 Strategy Group and a potential race in Finland...

Motor Racing - Formula One Testing - Day 2 - Jerez, Spain

One of the first lessons learned when entering the murky world of journalism is that the truth should never get in the way of a good…. Oh wait, that’s a different lesson, though no less important than the one marked: ‘when summer hoves into view, all sense apparently goes out the window’.

Yes, indeed, as a cub reporter working on local newspapers, it was drummed into me that summertime is known as silly season. The sane world packs its bags, boards a plane for some Costa or other and in the great news vacuum that follows the only thing left behind is an endless parade of knobbly knees and bonny babies – occasionally with both criteria featuring in the same truly frightening contest.

Of course, the gilt-edged, high-tech world of Formula One is different isn’t it? In the non-stop, techno arms race that is grand prix racing there is no room for the nonsensical, no space afforded to the incongruous, the spurious, the fatuous.

Which is, of course, rubbish. Formula One in August is the temple of all of the above, featuring an altar on which reality is regularly sacrificed in the name of the clearly bonkers.

Motor Racing - Formula One World Championship - British Grand Prix - Preparation Day - Silverstone, England

Take, for example, this week’s statements by Pastor Maldonado. Now, I’ve got nothing against Pastor and indeed, on the couple of occasions I’ve sat down to speak with him it’s apparent that he’s a genuinely lovely chap – good humoured, smart, fairly self-aware and absolutely determined to be the very best racing driver there has ever been. Plus, he’s a race-winner, which is not exactly small beer.

The trouble is that this week he appears to have developed a bit of a blind spot about, well, his blind spots.

Referencing his reputation as a bit of a crash magnet, Pastor offered the following explanation: “There is always pressure from the media, whether I'm right or wrong. There is always something that seeks to conceal my talent and tarnish my image in Formula One.”

He went on to add that had he been involved in the type of accident that occurred between Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen at the Austrian Grand Prix the media would have come down on him like a fourth estate-sized load of bricks.

Much though I’m sure he feels ‘tarnished’ this did seem a bit over the top. Indeed, to repurpose the great line uttered by Kenneth Williams playing Julius Caesar in ‘60s romp ‘Carry on Cleo’, Pastor believes his reputation is a case of “Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me!”

Motor Racing - Formula One World Championship - Hungarian Grand Prix - Race Day - Budapest, Hungary

The thing is that the statistics don’t exactly bear out his argument. Having clattered into Sergio Perez in Hungary, Maldonado was handed a drive through penalty and two penalty points, giving him a current total of six for the past 12 months. That puts him at the top of the FIA’s naughty list. He was also slapped with two further penalties during the race, for speeding in the pit lane and overtaking under the safety car.

It is true that statistics don’t count for everything, however, and Pastor is matched on that list by Lotus team-mate Romain Grosjean, indicating that he’s not alone in having the odd wayward moment. Also, if you look at the punishments handed out to Maldonado this year then it’s clear his major transgressions are relatively few: a 10-second time penalty in Malaysia for not meeting the delta time set during a safety car period, a five-second penalty for being out of position on the grid in Bahrain, the schmozzle in Hungary. He was even absolved of responsibility for his clash with Jenson Button in China.

However, look back at the litany of penalties the Venezuelan has gathered in his years in Formula One and a glaring pattern emerges, a pattern that has not changed despite the passing of time and the accumulation of experience. Thus to blame the media – all media – for perfidiously tarnishing his reputation is probably a bit rich.

Motor Racing - Formula One World Championship - Australian Grand Prix - Race Day - Melbourne, Australia

In fact, if it helps to clarify his position, Pastor might possibly like to think of it in these terms: It’s a bit like going out with a girl you really like but who your mates – all your mates, – reckon is more akin to Cruella de Vil. For a while passion will blind you to the obvious but eventually you have to accept that a sudden drop in the local Dalmatian population is probably on the cards.

So, to pile on the analogies and return to the earlier Julius Caesar comparison, it’s possible that Pastor is less like the Roman ruler and is in fact a lot more like Egyptian contemporary Cleopatra, in that on the basis of his unwillingness to accept the obvious he is truly the Queen of Denial.

Elsewhere, it wouldn’t be silly season without some pronouncement from the F1 Strategy Group, a group seemingly predicated on such seasonal silliness. With time running out on clear definition of the regulations for 2017 cars, the Strategy Group has decided that the sport requires more overtaking and they have asked teams to look at ways of further increasing passing moves.

This latest must-do to improve the nebulous thing F1‘s power-brokers insist on calling ‘the show’ just seems like another knee-jerk brainwave based on something someone heard somewhere some time in the recent past

OK, there’s a valid point in there somewhere, in that there is an issue of driver being unable to close on rivals ahead due to a turbulent wake and loss of downforce but aren’t there already contingencies to mitigate against this in the current 2017 proposals through a longer, higher-exiting diffuser, which would result in less turbulence behind the car and which would also result in higher levels of downforce being generated by the underfloor of the car?

This latest must-do to improve the nebulous thing F1‘s power-brokers insist on calling ‘the show’ just seems like another knee-jerk brainwave based on something someone heard somewhere some time in the recent past. The sooner the Strategy Group stops talking about F1 being a ‘show’ and remembers that Formula One is something called sport, in which people compete based on a sensible set of regulations based on prudent long-term thinking and a level playing field then the better off it will be.

Motor Racing - Formula One World Championship - Malaysian Grand Prix - Race Day - Sepang, Malaysia

This summer break’s final bit of knobbly-kneed madness comes in the shape of Finnish tabloid Ilta-Sanomat reporting that the country is on the verge of sealing a deal for a grand prix around the streets of Helsinki. According to the paper, Marja-Leena Lappalainen, who along with husband Robert Lappalainen organised DTM races in Helsinki in the 1990s, has undertaken a feasibility study of staging a grand prix around a 4.5km city course. The report mentions a paltry $100m investment for the necessary infrastructure and a meagre $25m a year hosting fee.

This is obviously a completely mad idea, for Finland has none of the attributes required of a putative grand prix location. It is a progressive, open society with a free press and a solid human rights record, and has little need to apply the veneer of respectability a major international sporting event can bring.

In any case what would be the point of another race in Europe? With next year’s European Grand Prix in the European city of Baku in the Republic of Azerbaijan, Europe, F1 will have 10 races on the ever-expanding continent and with exciting and welcoming places like Qatar knocking down the door marked entry with a $70m-shaped battering ram then another race in a place where people might like only seems like the season we’re in, utterly silly.

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